Kautilya (Chanakya)

One of the earliest political thinkers of ancient India, Kautilya (Chanakaya), the celebrated author of the Arthasastra, was prime minister of the emperor Chandragupta (r. 326–301 b.c.e.) of the Mauryan Empire (326–200 b.c.e.).

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According to some historians, he is dated around fourth century c.e., belonging to the Gupta Empire (320–500 c.e.). He was educated in the famous University of Takshasilâ (Taxila) and afterward taught politics there. Repeated Greek invasions forced him to migrate to Pataliputra, the capital of Magadha (presently Patna, the capital of Bihar Province). He soon fell out of favor with the ruling king Dhana Nanda (r. 334–322 b.c.e.) because of his outspoken and blunt nature. Indian legends speak of a meeting of Kautilya and Chandragupta, both of whom had an ax to grind against the Nanda dynasty.

Dhana Nanda had humiliated Kautilya and had ousted Chandragupta from the army. Chandragupta deposed Dhana Nanda with the help of Kautilya and thus the first unified empire, covering most of present-day India and Pakistan, was created. The Mauryan Empire had a well organized administration, thanks to the Brahman pundit Kautilya. When Chandragupta renounced his kingdom to become an ascetic, Kautilya remained as prime minister, but jealousy of some of the ministers put his life in danger. According to Indian legends, a jealous minister named Subandhu burned him to death in 275 b.c.e.


The most important of three books attributed to Kautilya is the Arthasastra (Science of material gains). Written in Sanskrit, the Arthasastra is a work on practical politics and covers topics on statecraft, the duties of a king, information pertaining to social life, the plant kingdom, the animal world, agriculture, minerals, and metals. The Arthasastra came into the limelight in the beginning of the 20th century and has been compared with The Prince, written by Machiavelli (1469–1527).

Kautilya covers in detail conduct of diplomatic affairs and policies to be followed with neighboring states. Kautilya speaks about preparation for war, methods for defeating independent kingdoms, and occupation of an enemy capital. The safety of the king was the first priority. There should be secret escape routes, the residential complex should be fireproofed, and there should be female guards armed with bows. We know from chapter five of the Arthasastra that Indians had a sound knowledge of metals, such as arakuta (brass), vrattu (steel), kamsa (bronze), and tala (bell metal). He talked of manidhatu (gem materials), different stones and jewelry, and kachamani (artificial gems) imitated by coloring glass.

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